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30 years ago today, Mirsad fled into the woods and became a fugitive when Europe’s worst war since 1945 swept through his village in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today he watches with a sickening sense of déjà vu as Europe once again faces the worst conflict and refugee crisis since World War II.
“It’s terrible, terrible what’s going on in Ukraine. An absolute mess. It brings back all the memories for me,” he said.
Mirsad eventually returned home a few years after the war to live in an area conquered and still controlled by the same “side” that killed his brother, terrorized his parents and burned his village. But only because he was forced to.
His story shows how difficult any return can be, even when backed by broad international support and a peacekeeping force to make it safe.
On May 3, 1992, in the early days of Bosnia’s now infamous “ethnic cleansing,” Serbian paramilitaries invaded the village of Hranča, beating to death three men who had failed to escape, shooting dead a young girl, Selma Hodžić, and burned houses.
Serbs soon controlled all of eastern Bosnia – not far from Srebrenica, where Serb troops later carried out the worst massacre in Europe since World War II II – when they tried to expel all Bosnian Muslims or Bosniaks who had made up the bulk of the population.
With nowhere else to go, Mirsad, then 31, and other villagers who had also fled into the forest, returned 10 days later and surrendered. Serbian troops held her and beat her for days in a school gym in a nearby town, where guards shot other men in front of them. Mirsad heard them boast that they had beaten a man to death there days ago and realized they were talking about his own brother.
He was later part of a group that was expelled to Visoko in Bosnian government territory.
“When I arrived in Visoko, I got a fever. I just couldn’t shake the fear,” he said.
From there Mirsad reached his sister in Germany with people smugglers and even on foot across mountain borders.
There he met his now-wife Azemina – another refugee from Glogova, just a few kilometers from Hranča, where 64 villagers were massacred on May 9. She had fled over the hills to Srebrenica.
In 1995 an international peace agreement largely froze the conflict, leaving Bosnia nominally whole but politically divided in two. One half of the country – including Mirsad’s village – was the new Bosnian Serb Republic, the other half was called the Federation and consisted mostly of Bosniaks and Croats.
Eager to get rid of tens of thousands of refugees, the European Union soon declared that the Bosnians should go home. And to try not to reward ethnic cleansing, peacekeepers were dispatched to ensure the safety of returnees in areas where they would now be a minority.
Crucially, the deal was backed by both the West and Russia.
But while the lure of home can be strong, who wants to live in an area controlled by the people who drove you out? Which Ukrainian will want to return to a Russian-run Mariupol?
Mirsad certainly didn’t want to go home. When Germany told him the time was up, he slipped to Sweden and applied for asylum, but that also failed. In 2003 he finally went home his wife and fellow refugee Azemina and their two young daughters.
Mirsad’s parents had returned before him because they were tired of being refugees in another part of Bosnia. When war approaches, the elderly are often the least inclined to leave; but when masked gunmen doused the couple in petrol and threatened to set them on fire, they fled, their house ablaze behind them.
With foreign help, they rebuilt their homeland from the ground up.
“The local Serbian builders came to work on our house – and greeted us happily as if nothing had ever happened,” his late mother told me angrily a few years ago.
Half of Bosnia’s more than 2 million displaced persons eventually returned to their homes, UN Counting Show. But unlike Mirsad, many refused to ever return to their former homes in areas where they feared persecution.
life among ghosts
I first met Mirsad’s family a few years after the war when I wanted to see what had become of the village I happened to see as a Reuters correspondent the morning after the fire – a scene I remember vividly is since.
My fellow journalist Tim Judah and I drove to Sarajevo, saw the smoke on the road, and set out to investigate. We encountered wailing, traumatized women and children wandering the paths between their smoldering homes.
The bodies of the three beaten men were lined up on the ground. In her home, Ramiza Hodžić sat on the sofa with the body of her 7-year-old daughter Selma next to her, wrapped like a mummy.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, Mirsad was hiding in the forest just a few hundred yards away.
Since we met in 2006, I have returned to see the family several times over the years. One day, Mirsad showed me the tree he hid behind out of fear “that day,” as he calls it, and watched the village cattle burn in their stalls.
Mirsad said that since his return, he still feels surrounded by the ghosts of the past that could appear at any moment.
“This area was so beautiful and I still remember it as such,” he said. “It was early May that day. Everything turned green, it was so, so beautiful.”
Upon his return, he did odd jobs, tending raspberries and other crops in the fields of neighbors who had never returned, keeping his head down so as not to attract attention. Outside, he only whispers about the past for fear of being overheard.
When he attended his daughters’ school in the nearby town of Bratunac, he shuddered.
“Imagine how hard it was for me when I was taking my kids to school and I realized they were going to this gym where I was being held captive and where my brother and other people were being killed. It’s inhumane,” Mirsad said. “It’s impossible not to feel fear there.”
Some of Hranča’s attackers were from Serbia. Others were locals, even neighbors, he said. Eventually, one of the latter was convicted for his role in local attacks — but only for burning houses.
“They wanted me to be a witness. But I have to live here and no one will guarantee my safety,” Mirsad said.
Serbian neighbors crossed the street in town to avoid confronting Mirsad after the war, making him wonder if they were ashamed.
But he still doesn’t go into town very often in Bratunac. His kind – Bosniaks – are definitely not welcome in many of his shops and cafes.
In Hranča, the ruins of destroyed houses can still be seen among weeds and bushes, which they reclaim. Only a fraction of the approximately 300 pre-war residents returned, and now around 50 people live here on the main street in the valley.
On the largely deserted hill above, once the beating heart of the village, are the graves of those killed that day 30 years ago, including that of Selma Hodžić shot while tending a lamb. Her mother fled and never came back to live here.
There are more than 90 names on a village memorial for “victims of aggression against Bosnia” – daring not say who killed them. Most died in 1992, but some were villagers who fled across the valley and through forests to Srebrenica, only to be killed in the 1995 genocide by Bosnian Serb forces – along with Azemina’s brother and about 8,000 other Bosniaks.
Try to look ahead
It can feel scary and lonely in Hranča, especially in winter, Mirsad said.
“We are afraid of being left alone. There is so much living space but all these empty houses.”
I remember thinking on one of my visits to Hranča what a miserable life it seemed to live in the shadow of the people who killed your brother and ruined your life.
But Mirsad and his family have tried to make the best of things, determined not to fester resentment and poison their lives, and when in doubt, agree with the people.
He and Azemina have two bright and cheerful daughters who received a decent education first at the local school and then in Srebrenica among mainly Serbian schoolmates with whom they got on well.
“You have to think positively,” Đenita, the older daughter, told me when I was at school there. “When they tell me I’m different, I feel sad, I feel sorry for them. We must not hate each other.”
However, Mirsad laments that his daughters only learned the Serbian version of history, the Serbian language and Serbian literature – almost as if they weren’t in Bosnia at all.
Replace Serbian with Russian, and the same thing awaits Ukrainian children at school in Russian-controlled territories now.
Mirsad’s girls study and work in Tuzla, across the internal border in the Bosniak-controlled part of the country.
It’s hard to imagine them ever coming back. The capital, Sarajevo, or even emigration can beckon, as can many Bosnians who believe their divided country, no longer at war but far from having found true peace, has little future to offer .
Their unity is more at stake now than it has been since the war, and the conflict in Ukraine will not help.
The leaders of the Bosnian Serb Republic, staunch cheerleaders of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war, are threatening secession.
The EU-led peacekeeping force, still reining in potential violence, has nearly doubled since the start of the war in Ukraine amid fears geopolitical instability could have a domino effect on Bosnia.
Mirsad watches Ukraine with sadness, anger and disgust. He said it all felt very familiar, but added: “The bombing and shelling and destruction of cities, it’s a lot worse than here. What is all this for?”
As a pretext for war in the 1990s, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević cited the need to defend Serbs left outside its borders as Serb-dominated Yugoslavia fell apart – first in Croatia and then in Bosnia, where an estimated 100,000 people died.
Putin, lamenting the end of the Soviet Union, makes similar arguments about Russians, including those in Ukraine, as well as in Georgia and Moldova, two other former Soviet republics that now have frozen conflicts and breakaway Russian-backed regions.
If Putin fails to defeat Ukraine, he has every interest in keeping it alive as a weak and divided nation. Bosnians know how that feels.
https://www.politico.eu/article/bosnia-refugees-bitter-lesson-ukraine-war/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Fate of Bosnian refugees is a bitter lesson for Ukraine - POLITICO